Ancient India

India’s Cultural Contacts with Asian Countries

MEDIEVAL lawgivers and commentators ordained that a person ‘should not cross the seas. This would imply that India shunned all relations with the outside world. But this is hot so, for India maintained contacts with its Asian neighbours since Harappan times. Indian traders went to the cities of Mesopotamia, where their seals belonging to the period between 2400 B.C. and 1700 B.C. have been found. From the beginning of the Christian era onwards, India maintained commercial contacts with China, South East Asia, West Asia and the Roman empire. We have seen how the Indian land routes were connected with the Chinese Silk Route. We have also dwelt on India’s commercial intercourse with the eastern part of the Roman empire. In addition to this, India sent its missionaries, conquerors and traders to the neighbouring countries where they founded settlements.

The propagation of Buddhism promoted India’s contacts with Sri Lanka, Myanmar, China and Central Asia. Most probably the Buddhist missionaries were sent to Sri Lanka in the reign of Ashoka in the third century B.C. Short inscriptions in Brahmi script belonging to the second and first centuries B.C. have been found in Sri Lanka. In course of time, Buddhism came to acquire a permanent stronghold in Sri Lanka. In the early centuries of the Christian era Buddhism spread from India to Burma (modern Myanmar). The Burmese developed the Theravada form of Buddhism and erected many temples and statues in honour of the Buddha. What is more significant, the Burmese and Sri Lanka Buddhists produced a rich corpus of Buddhist; literature, not to be found in India. All the Pali texts were compiled and commented upon in Sri Lanka. Although Buddhism disappeared from India it continued to command a large following in Burma and Sri Lanka, which is the case even now.

Beginning with the reign of Kanishka a large number of Indian missionaries went to China, Central Asia and Afghanistan for preaching their religion. From China Buddhism spread to Korea and Japan and it was in search of Buddhist texts and doctrines that several Chinese pilgrims such as Fa-hsien and Hsuan Tsang came to India. Eventually this contact proved fruitful to both the countries. A Buddhist colony cropped up at Tun Huang, which was the starting point of the companies of merchants going across the desert. The Indians learnt the art of growing silk from China and the Chinese learnt from India the art of Buddhist painting.

The two other; great centres of Buddhism, in ancient times were Afghanistan and Central Asia. In Afghanistan many statues of the Buddha and monasteries have been discovered. Begraxn and Bamiyan situated in the north of this country are famous for such relics. Begram is famous for ivory work, which is similar to Indian workmanship hr Kushan times. Bamiyan has the distinction of possessing the tallest Buddha statue sculptured out of ruck in the early centuries of the Christian era. It has thousands of natural and artificial caves in which the monks lived. Buddhism continued to hold ground in Afghanistan until the seventh century, A.D. when it was supplanted by Islam.

A similar process took place in Central Asia. Excavations have revealed Buddhist monasteries, stupas and inscriptions and manuscripts written in Indian languages at several places in Central Asia. As a result of the extension of the Kushan rule, Prakrit written in Kharoshthi script spread to Central Asia where we find many Prakrit inscr-niions and manuscripts belonging to me fourth century A.D. written language was used for official and day-to-day correspondence as well as for the preservation and propagation of Buddhism. In Central Asia Buddhism continued to be a dominant religious force.

Indian culture also spread to South-East Asia, but not through the medium of Buddhism. Except in the case of Burma it was mostly diffused through the brahmardcal cults. The name Suvarnabhumi was given to Pegu and Moulmeih. In Burma and merchants from Broach, Banaras and Bhagaipur traded with Burma. Considerable Buddhist remains of Gupta times have been found in Burma. From the first century A.D. India established close trading relations with Java in Indonesia, which was called Suyamadvlpa or the island of gold by the ancient Indians. The earliest Indian settlements in Java were established in A.D. 58. In the second century of the Christian era several small Indian principalities were set up. When the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien visited Java in the fifth century A.D., he found the brahmanical religion prevalent there, In the early centuries of the Christian era the Pallavas founded their colonies in Sumatra. Eventually these flowered into the kingdom of Sri Vijaya, which continued to be an important power and a centre of Indian culture from the fifth to the tenth century A.D. The Indian settlements in Java and Sumatra became channels for the radiation of Indian culture. The process of founding settlements continued afterwards.

In Indo-China, which at present divided into Vietnam, Carncodia and Laos, the Indians set up two powerful kingdoms in Kamboja and Champa. The powerful kingdom of Kamboja, identical-with modern Cambodia was founded in the sixth century A.D. Its rulers were devotees of Shiva. They developed Kamboja as a centre of Sanskrit learning and numerous inscriptions were composed in this language.

In the neighbourhood of Kamboja at Champa, embracing southern Vietnam and the fringes of northern Vietnam, it seems that the traders set up their colonies. The king of Champa was also a Shaba and the official language of Champa was Sanskrit. This country was considered to be a great centre of education in the Vedas and Dharmashastras.

Indian settlements in the Indian Ocean continued to flourish until the thirteenth century and during this period intermingled with the local peoples. Continuous commingling gave rise to a new type of art, language and literature. We find in these countries several art objects, which show a happy blending of both Indian and indigenous elements. It is astonishing that the greatest Buddhist temple is found not in India but in Borobudur in Indonesia. Considered to be the largest Buddhist temple in the whole world, it was constructed in the eighth century A.D. and 436 images of Buddha were engraved on it.

The temple of Ankorvat in Cambodia is larger than that of Borobudur. Although this temple belongs to medieval times it can be compared to the best artistic achievements of the Egyptians and Greeks. The stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata are narrated in relief on the walls of the temple. The story of the Ramayana is so popular in Indonesia that many folk plays are performed on its basis. The Indonesian language called Bahasa Indonesia contains numerous Sanskrit words.

In respect of sculpture the head of the Buddha from Thailand, the head from Kamboja and the magnificent bronze images from Java are regarded as the best examples of the blending of Indian art with the local art traditions of South-East Asia. Similarly, beautiful examples of-painting comparable to those of Ajanta have been found not only in Sri Lanka but in the Tun Huang caves on the Chinese border.

It would be wrong to think that religion alone contributed to the spread of Indian culture. Missionaries were backed by traders and conquerors. Trade evidently played a vital part in establishing India’s relations with Central Asia and South East Asia. The very names Suvarnabhumi and Suvarnadvipa given to territories in South-East Asia, suggest Indians search for gold. Trade led not only to exchange of goods but also-to that of elements of culture. It would be inaccurate to hold that Indians alone contributed to the culture of their neighbours. It was a two-way traffic. The Indians acquired the craft of minting gold coins from the Greeks and Romans. They learnt the art of growing silk from China that of growing betel leaves from, Indonesia and several, other products from the neighbouring countries. Similarly, the method of growing cotton spread from India to China and Central Asia. However, Indian contribution seems to be more important in art, religion, script and language. But in no case the culture which developed in the neighbouring countries was a replica of the Indian culture. Just as India retained and developed its own personality in spite of foreign influences, similarly, each country in South-East Asia developed its own typical culture by synthesizing the Indian elements with its indigenous elements.


  1. Describe India’s cultural contacts with the countries of South, SouthEast, Central and East Asia.
  2. Mention the various ways through which elements of Indian culture spread to these countries.
  3. Which aspects of life and culture of these countries were influenced by India? Give examples.
  4. Collect pictures of the art objects and architecture of these countries. Discuss, with the help of these pictures, the statement that the ait of these countries shows a blending of both Indian and indigenous dements.
  5. Write an essay on the influence of the culture of other countries on the development of Indian culture in ancient times. Refer to the earlier chapters of this book and to other works for this.
  6. On an outline map of Asia, show the countries and places mentioned in the tact.

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